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Supreme Court's invalidation of Electoral Act good for Nigeria's democracy

By Ken Okorie

The Supreme Court admonished the National Assembly as having no business legislating on the tenure and election schedule of local governments. This should be a welcome reminder that Nigeria practices a system that is totally inconsistent with its presumed federal structure. So much power is concentrated at the federal level that the operatives in Abuja seem to forget that the federal, state and local are three separate tiers to our system of governance.
On Thursday March 28, 2002, the Supreme Court of Nigeria declared unconstitutional the Electoral Act recently passed by the legislature and signed into law by the President. The highest Court of the land ruled that the national assembly exceeded its constitutional powers in enacting legislation on the tenure of local government councils. The Court said. "No law enacted by the National Assembly can validly increase or otherwise alter the tenure of office of elected officers or chairmen and councilors of local government councils." It also held that the National Assembly has no power to set "the date of election into local government councils in Nigeria."

This is a most welcome development. For the first time in our nascent democracy, the legal system has been asked to play the role properly set for the courts in a civilized democracy. Prior to now, we have only witnessed an Executive and Legislature contentiously locked in a quagmire of ineptitude and confusion that has simply left our polity confused and drifting.

Neglecting the duty of that office, The Presidency in particular has simply ignored or danced around major developments that have serious and lasting implications for the very future of the country and its governance.

A significant case in point is the Sharia. Few months into this government, the State of Zamfara unilaterally adopted the Islamic Code thereby creating for its citizens a legal system that was outside the framework of the national constitution. Such dual track that punishes citizens of the same country differently for the same offense is clear statement of self-exemption from the national constitution.

The foremost duty of the government should have been to condemn this development and quickly seek judicial interpretation and ruling. Nigeria's President retired Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo (in pix, right) seemed too inept to recognize the direct challenge posed to the corporate existence of Nigeria by this development that he let Sharia spread through the northern states. Today Sharia has become very political and dealing with it is far more difficult. Also, see my previous commentary 'Is Obasanjo Up To Nigeria's Challenge'

The legislature can be expected to sometimes overstep its bounds; sometimes without motive, other times driven by narrow interests and agenda, including self-preservation. The Presidency too will get overzealous over some matters. The intersection of interests and agendas that may sometimes coalesce and at others conflict is inescapable in a viable democracy. The role of the Judiciary is to validate these executive and legislative actions and initiatives through legal scrutiny. This rule is so fundamental that a democracy that does not play by it will falter and wither.

The Electoral Act used the excuse to harmonize elections at the national level. While this might have been a desirable ideal, it also became a convenient tool for partisan political agenda that undermined the entire democratic process. The Presidency and his party in power, the PDP, attempted through it to muscle out potential opposition, placing greater hurdles in the way of new parties.

Some lessons are too obvious not to learn. Countries, especially of Africa, that promote one party system or scuttle free party choices have not done well. Kenya is a good example. On the other hand, democracy has evolved much stronger in the small state of Israel, despite its enduring survival threats from larger Arab neighbors. The lesson here is simple. People give their best to their country when they enjoy freedom of choice, including choice of political affiliation.

The Presidency and Legislature may try what they will, but constitutional muster as determined by the courts should be the last word. I strongly believe that this landmark ruling in which the highest Court of the land has been rightly allowed to play its constitutional role represents the only direction that will salvage Nigeriaís democracy.

Attorney Okorie is a member of the Editorial Board of USAfrica The Newspaper and former Secretary general, World Igbo Congress. This commentary is copyrighted. Archiving on any other web site or newspaper is unauthorized except with a Written Approval by Founder. March 29, 2002.

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